BREAKING! EXCLUSIVE! NYT’s Ambiguous Reporting Leads to Logical Conclusions

I guess John Brennan has figured out that the effort to roll out the Steely Decider campaign has backfired.

How else to explain the almost unheard of tactic from the NYT of accusing those who drew very logical conclusions from its own article of engaging in gossip?

For example, the NYT complains that people read these passages:

This was the enemy, served up in the latest chart from the intelligence agencies: 15 Qaeda suspects in Yemen with Western ties. The mug shots and brief biographies resembled a high school yearbook layout. Several were Americans. Two were teenagers, including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.

[snip]

“How old are these people?” he asked, according to two officials present. “If they are starting to use children,” he said of Al Qaeda, “we are moving into a whole different phase.”

It was not a theoretical question: Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.

And concluded that, “President Obama really add[ed] a 17-year-old girl to the counterterrorism “kill list.”

The NYT complains that people read this passage:

David Axelrod, the president’s closest political adviser, began showing up at the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.

And concluded that “his political adviser, David Axelrod, really participate[d] in discussions of which terrorist suspects should be targeted in drone strikes.”

In its effort to suggest readers have drawn unfair conclusions from what I assume was NYT’s deliberately vague reporting, it clings to that very ambiguity (ambiguity, I’ll add, which made the article far more dramatic and therefore more widely read).

The article said that Mr. Obama knew he might be asked to add such terrorism suspects to the kill list — but it did not say he had been asked to do it in this case. Nor did it say that he had done so.

Ah, but the article also didn’t say he hadn’t done so, either, did it? So whose fault is it that readers drew precisely the conclusions that the narrative and emphasis of the article created?

The NYT is so intent on impugning those who drew very logical conclusions from its vague reporting that it made this laughably inaccurate claim:

On the left, too, there were thousands of posts with inaccurate claims about what The Times had reported. Many picked up what a blogger for the conspiracy-minded PrisonPlanet.com wrote on the day the article appeared: that The Times had said Mr. Obama had placed several Americans and a 17-year-old girl, all with alleged links to the branch of Al Qaeda in Yemen, on the kill list.

I’m not sure what is most offensive about this. That a newspaper complaining that readers drew inaccurate conclusions from its vague reporting made an inaccurate claim that a libertarian is a lefty? That, in an effort to impugn Alex Jones the NYT decided to label him as a lefty?

Or that neither here nor in the larger article did the NYT breathe one word of that American 16-year old who was killed in a drone strike, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Even if this particular 17-year old girl weren’t ever put on the kill list (though she may well have been–the NYT effectively commits a journalistic Glomar by neither confirming nor denying it here), an American teenager was, one whose death goes unmentioned.

I refrained from noting the following when I first wrote about this article, but this odd attempt to ensure the Steely Decider campaign doesn’t backfire makes it pertinent.

First, remember what Scott Shane said when he got called on letting a senior Administration official hide behind anonymity to insinuate those doing independent reporting on drone strikes were al Qaeda sympathizers?

Shane, in written responses to a number of questions that Nieman Watchdog posed to him about the two articles, said he believes this particular quote was not necessarily directed at BIJ, calling it “ambiguous, and I wish I had been able to clarify it.” He added: “Based on all my reporting over the last couple of years, I believe U.S. government officials have in mind not BIJ or other journalists as sympathizers of Al Qaeda but militants and perhaps ISI officers who supply what they consider disinformation on strikes to journalists.”

Apparently, he was helpless in the face of the ambiguity that allowed sources–probably the same one demanding he go back and counter the blowback from this article–to insinuate independent journalism amounted to helping terrorism. But now, he sees fit not to clear up his own ambiguities, but rather to attack those who drew fair conclusions from those ambiguities.

The story must always mean what is most convenient for John Brennan.

Then there’s this. The Administration is currently prosecuting John Kiriakou for leaking information about the torture program John Brennan once championed. The very core of their case–not to mention any pretense that the government didn’t use National Security Letters to get journalists’ sources to identify leads in this case–is a Scott Shane story for which, he said, he had two dozen sources. One of the very first things Kiriakou’s lawyer is going to do, I’d wager, is demand to know who the other 23 sources for the story are so he can prove that some of those people–people like Buzzy Krongard–knew that Deuce Martinez was involved in the torture and interrogation program.

Now, as a threshold matter, the fact that Shane might have been–and may well be–under DOJ surveillance for a leak investigation suggests that every source who spoke to him for the drone story would have heightened awareness of the risk of speaking out of turn. That sucks. It goes to the core of the problem of Obama’s war on leakers, not to mention their claimed authority to use NSLs to get journalist contact information in national security investigations. But because of this Administration’s decision to prosecute a guy who allegedly identified torturers, Scott Shane’s sources–at least those that say things the Administration doesn’t want out there, mind you–may be in a precarious position. Yet people spoke to Shane for this blockbuster article nevertheless.

Furthermore, Shane undoubtedly knows that the Kiriakou prosecution–particularly those 23 sources sitting between John Kiriakou and a fair trial–could get him in a bigger pickle than James Risen is currently in. This makes Shane’s awkward position even worse. DOJ may well get to decide whether to let Kiriakou go free or risk a judge allowing Kiriakou’s lawyer to demand a list of Shane’s sources from 2008.

Now, I’m not blaming Shane on this front. I’m just pointing out what kind of ancillary power the Administration gets from its leak investigations. It may well be that that’s not playing a part here at all. But I do think it worth noting that Shane–and the NYT generally–may be in a position where the same people hiding behind all this ambiguity will have some say over what kind of headaches Shane will face for once using Kiriakou as a source.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

23 replies
  1. JTM says:

    The suggestion – whether on purpose or not – that the Administration might be using leaks to justify investigating journalist is one that had not occurred to me before. But it makes a frightening amount of sense. Leak a few things (that work in your favor, of course) and then use the leaks that you, yourself, performed to justify investigating journalists via any means possible, including NSLs. Yow.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @JTM: Well, I think the Sterling prosecution is, in part, an attempt to jail James Risen. Sure, Sterling is gravy, but jailing Risen for protecting his sources would punish him for the illegal wiretap story without risking exposing more details about the illegal wiretap prorgam.

    What’s going on here is slightly different. The Admin picked Fitz to do this investigation, because the CIA was demanding a head. Kiriakou was the lowest hanging fruit, particularly given this past Shane article (which the govt had tried hard to get NYT not to publish). I don’t think the Admin planned on it working out this way–the idea was to get the head of a detainee lawyer, which would have also made it easier to crack down on attorney client privilege in Gitmo (which they achieved via other means anyway). Once Fitz did focus on Kiriakou–especially the Deuce part, which is probably there bc it’s an easily segmented crime he could prosecute w/o putting the ID of the covert officer at risk–then it opened up a can of worms. I suspect that can of worms will be closed with some kind of settlement–or the Admin letting Kiriakou graymail them. But for now, Shane’s in a shitty position.

  3. Arbusto says:

    I’m waiting for Obama LLC, much like Bush the Lesser before him, to issue ex post facto letters of authorization, declassifying these attacks, for off the record interviews. The letters of authorization would state that the world needed to know these killings are approved, justified, targeted and accurate. Further any and all deaths, dismemberment or wounding is the victim’s fault for being in proximity to any attack, i.e. in the wrong place at the wrong time or guilt by association, take your pick. Thus any unauthorized release of information, such as by John Kiriakou not authorized and illegal. The Supremes would buy the argument, as evidenced by their recent ruling that allows Secret Service agents to abridge the 1st Amendment.

  4. MadDog says:

    With regard to Axelrod’s attendance at the White House Situation Room Tuesday meetings, Shane’s latest piece is disingenuous at best. He clearly stated that Axelrod attended such meetings.

    As to Axelrod’s participation in discussions regarding drone strikes, kill lists or other national security discussions, I don’t think that Axelrod has convinced many with his denial.

  5. emptywheel says:

    @Phil Perspective: I’m not going that far. I’m suggesting it presents a tension, one which might make NYT worry more if the Admin felt like this drone story had been edited in such a way that it misinformed. That said, if that’s the case, NYT should have blamed themselves for misleading editing, not blame their readers for fair conclusions.

  6. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Yup! There are other meetings outside of that Situation Room where arms are politically twisted, and I have no doubt that Axelrod weighed in with a “political view”.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The NYT apparently doesn’t like it when people notice when it replaces journalism with covering its ass.

    And thanks for pointing out to the forgetful NYT that it failed to report that whether Mr. Obama knowingly targeted a 17 year-old girl for destruction, he has certainly targeted and killed a 16 year-old boy.

    Debate over WHO is targeted ought not to drive out debate about whether the president ought to be able to target any individual in this manner, let alone target groups for death that he “identifies” through software-based “pattern analysis”, regardless of the actual behavior or risk posed by any of the real people – mothers, fathers, sons, daughters – in those groups. Especially as, inevitably, what goes around comes around.

    Really, is this anything other than a precursor to a global body-count war?

  8. Kathleen says:

    @MadDog:
    Obama’s Secret War Against Iran Dooms Diplomacy and Imperils American Interests
    http://www.raceforiran.com/obama%E2%80%99s-secret-war-against-iran-dooms-diplomacy-and-imperils-american-interests#comments
    “The article goes on to describe multiple details about Stuxnet and the President’s decision-making as to its use. We, however, are most interested in the report for what it confirms about Obama’s approach to Iran—in particular, that Obama’s aggressiveness toward the Islamic Republic extended to a significant expansion of “America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons.” Consider what Sanger writes about the motives for Obama’s decision-making in this regard:

    “Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on Olympic Games, was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade. He repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons—even under the most careful and limited circumstances—could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks.

    ‘We discussed the irony, more than once,’ one of his aides said. Another said that the administration was resistant to developing a ‘grand theory for a weapon whose possibilities they were still discovering.’ Yet Mr. Obama concluded that when it came to stopping Iran, the United States had no other choice.

    If Olympic Games failed, he told aides, there would be no time for sanctions and diplomacy with Iran to work. Israel could carry out a conventional military attack, prompting a conflict that could spread throughout the region.”

  9. MadDog says:

    On a related front, I expect the NYT’s David Sanger to feel some of the same US government heat that the NYT’s Scott Shane is feeling – via the WSJ:

    FBI Probes Leaks on Iran Cyberattack

    “The FBI has opened an investigation into who disclosed information about a classified U.S. cyberattack program aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to two people familiar with the probe.

    The investigation follows publication last week of details of the cyber-sabotage program, including the use of a computer worm called Stuxnet, which Iran has acknowledged it found in its computers.

    The Central Intelligence Agency ran the operation in conjunction with Idaho National Laboratory, the Israeli government and other U.S. agencies, according to people familiar with the efforts.

    The covert effort also includes drone surveillance and cyberspying on Iranian scientists, the people said.

    The New York Times on Friday published an account of the U.S. cyberattack operation in an excerpt from a forthcoming book by one of its reporters, David Sanger, that he said he has been working on for a year. Other news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, followed up with details about the program…”

  10. Michael Murry says:

    Something I don’t understand about the following: “… what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.”

    Did the successful attack of 9/11/2001 overwhelm the Bush administration’s other aspirations and achievements? I don’t think so. In fact, I remember the immediate media cry that went up to “rally round the President in time of war” instead of firing him for falling asleep on watch and letting the whole thing happen. So wouldn’t the corporate media demand a “rallying” around President Obama “in time of war” in the event of another successful attack? Just asking as a matter of logical deduction.

  11. Michael Murry says:

    @earlofhuntingdon:

    As Chris Hedges points out in Death of the Liberal Class, liberals do not criticize reactionary evil as such, only the inept implementation of it.

  12. Michael Murry says:

    “I takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish, and we Ents never say anything unless it is worth taking a very long time to say.” — Treebeard

    It takes a very short time to coin a euphemism for “civilian,” and the Obama Administration never kills a civilian unless it has taken a very short time to label him “of military age.”

  13. Michael Murry says:

    I came home from the American body counts and free-fire zones of Vietnam forty years ago. Forty years later, I read daily of the American body counts and free-fire zones of Afghanistan. Daniel Ellsberg says that you really can’t call American political and military officials “stupid,” just “clever people who have lost their minds.” I don’t know about that. As Forrest Gump said: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

  14. Michael Murry says:

    As President John F. Kennedy once said (quoting whom, I don’t remember): “The Ship of State leaks from the top.” It certainly seems to do so in this tawdry case. Someone from the Administration needs to go to jail to keep Bradley Manning company. We can’t afford to give the impression that In America only leaks from the bottom endanger the Empire, while those from the top matter not at all.

  15. ondelette says:

    So let me get this straight. The NYT criticizes bloggers and other critics like you for Kremlinwatchingtealeafreading their story, and your response is to kinda strongly imply that Scott Shane is being blackmailed by the Administration using the Kiriakou case and his comment about the 24 sources?

    You really don’t like to be criticized — playing hardball with somebody else’s ball of nails. Threatening a reporter with the government’s potential for fucking up their life because they criticized you for tea leafing them to death is a very innovative tough guy act.

    Totally unprincipled.

    All you really had to do was say you stuck by your interpretation.

  16. Michael Murry says:

    So in response to criticism for enthusiastically fellating the Obama Administration, the New York Times responds that it only administered the blow job because it feared getting fucked like it helped the Obama administration fuck Bradley Manning and Julian Assange.

  17. thatvisionthing says:

    This week on Le Show Harry Shearer did a Father Knows Best episode that starts with Kitten/Sasha breaking in on father Obama and John Brennan going over the kill list: http://harryshearer.com/news/le_show/player/?id=873 at 48:20. With laugh track.

    Spoiler alert!

    Now, Daddy needs to get back to his kill list, Kitten. And a certain princess needs to go to bed.

    Okay. But Daddy?

    Mmhmm.

    Am I on your kill list?

    (laughter)

    Oh, sweetheart. Not unless you’re a young man of military age in a failed state. (laughter) You’re not one of thooose, are you?

    Uh uh.

    Give me a kiss.

    Goodnight, Daddy.

    (music, applause)

Comments are closed.